Here lately I have seen many items come through my Facebook news feed with a common theme; religion has no place in politics. I am seeing these sentiments shared by my religious and non-religious friends alike. My strong suspicion is that what people mean by "keep religion out of politics" these days is that we should not legislate morality. And what they mean by "morality" is sexual morality. You know the drill -- abortion, contraception, homosexuality, divorce, etc.
There are important distinctions which are absent from most of the modern day talk of religion and politics. We seem in our society to have forgotten that there is a difference between legislating morality and legislating theology. While the latter would seem silly in most Western countries today, the former is absolutely necessary. Let me give you an example to help demonstrate my point.
Legislating theology (bad): Arianism* is illegal.
Legislating morality (good): Murder is illegal.
*an early heresy named for the priest Arius who taught that Jesus was the highest of all God's creatures, but that he was a created being and therefore not one in being with God the Father.
People often object to legislating morality by pointing to examples from the past of unjust legislation of theology. There were times when citizens were obliged to pay tithes to the Church of England, even if they were Catholic, Presbyterian or Baptist. Or places where Catholics were forbidden to hold public office. That sort of thing. Of course these examples show how unjust we can be as a society if we allow the governing class to dictate our religious practices.
But our governing class does have a crucial duty to legislate moral practice within society, and there are wise and foolish ways to go about it.
St. Augustine makes this very point in The City of God. There is a very important relationship between the civil law and the moral law. St. Augustine cautions that it would be imprudent to attempt to make everything which is immoral also illegal. Man is a weak creature who all too often falls into sin, and fails to live up to the moral law. Subjecting man to legal penalties and imprisonment every time his virtue fails him would be placing an undue burden upon the citizenry. However, he also recognizes that there are some immoral actions which are so harmful to society that they must be forbidden by the civil authorities in order to foster the common good.
St. Thomas Aquinas also writes very eloquently on the relationship between civil law and the moral law. He points out that in order for the laws of man to be just laws, they must correspond to the moral law (which is to say the natural law). If any of man's laws contradict the moral law, then they are unjust laws and therefore not truly laws at all, and should not be obeyed.
To sum up both of these great theologians' positions, not everything which is immoral should be illegal, but everything that is illegal should be immoral.
And so yes, of course we legislate morality. Morality after all is the science of determining right from wrong. And the only reason anything ought to be illegal is that it is wrong.
We have laws against murder, because murder is wrong. Murder is the taking of an innocent human life. Now when someone suggests that abortion is also the taking of an innocent human life and therefore we ought to have laws against abortion, they are not allowing theology to intrude into politics. They are using their moral compass to guide their political mind, and that should be what all politicians aim to do.
We have laws against theft because thievery is wrong. Thievery is the acquisition of property to which you have no right. Now when someone suggests that at a certain point the tax rate crosses the line and becomes federal thievery, are they also guilty of mixing religion and politics? Or are they simply questioning the ethics of current policy, which is their right and duty to do?
All of our laws are rooted in morality, or at least they ought to be. Morality deals with human conduct. Politics deal with the relationships of human beings living in a society. Of course we cannot separate the two. And of course religion will play a part in both, as religion has a great deal to do with both human conduct and human relationships. Though we must exercise prudence in its political role. (Uh oh, prudence is one of the Cardinal Virtues taught by the Catholic Church... does that mean we should leave prudence out of politics?)
When discussing these issues, the questions that need to be raised are 1) is the action in question immoral? and 2) would outlawing it increase the common good, or place an undue burden on the individual? Moral authorities such as the Church are excellent guides in answering the first question. The role of politicians and legislators is to answer the second question.
We live in a modern, pluralistic society. It would be unjust to make Judaism illegal, or Catholicism, or Protestantism. It would be unjust to make atheism illegal. People must be allowed to follow their consciences and worship God (or not) as they choose. And we must allow our politicians to do their best to create just and moral laws to govern our shared society. Those laws will deal with human behavior and human relationships. And sometimes things we may want to do will be illegal, because sometimes we want to do things that are not good for us, or not good for society.
Questions about the legality of such things as abortion, homosexual marriage and the like should be addressed in these terms. And yes, absolutely, questions of morality have a prominent place in these debates. So let's recognize this and allow morality its proper role in politics and stop pretending that the Inquisition is upon us whenever a politician suggests certain actions may be morally wrong.
One can say morality is precisely the area in which religion and politics overlap, inasmuch as both religion and politics have an interest in human behavior. In our zeal to keep religion separate from politics, have we also separated morality from politics? I think this is a fair question to ask, especially since these days we seem to be hearing more and more about the lack of ethics among our political class. Is there any wonder?